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Impact: Mary Crossan investigates the importance of leadership character

Jul 2, 2013

Impact: Mary Crossan on leadership character

In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, a team of researchers from the Ivey Business School came together to study what had gone wrong.

At the time, people were quick to put the blame on a multitude of sins, from executive compensation plans to poor financial regulation to just plain greed. The Ivey researchers, though, felt that the collapse came from a deeper root cause - a failure in leadership.

The "Leadership on Trial" research stream was launched by Ivey professors Mary Crossan, Jeffrey Gandz, Gerard Seijts, Dean Carol Stephenson, and PhD candidate Daina Mazutis, now a professor at IMD. The research team began by talking to some 300 senior leaders across the world about the role that leadership played before, during, and after the crisis.

In these discussions the word "character" came up again and again. Participants generally agreed that weakness of character led to the crisis, and strength of character helped many of the firms to weather it. Yet there was no real clarity around the meaning of character or whether it was something that could be learned.

The research team has completed a number of studies that outline the importance of leadership character in decision-making, create a model around it, and explore ways to build character in leaders.  "The research we're now doing is really attempting to bridge theory and practice," says Ivey Professor Mary Crossan. "We're trying to develop a language applicable to business - how the idea of character can be understood and applied in modern day management."

The team has just published a paper in the Journal of Business Ethics that develops a theoretical framework for understanding the role of character in leadership.  Leaders are often swayed by strong business and societal forces that affect judgement and behaviour, leading to unethical decisions. The paper builds on the work of other key researchers in this field, and shows how leaders need to develop deep character strengths to oppose these situational pressures. 

Crossan and her team have designed a model that makes the concept of developing leadership character more accessible to practitioners.  The model contains 11 character dimensions: integrity, courage, accountability, temperance, justice, humanity, judgment, drive, collaboration, transcendence, and humility. These character dimensions are each associated with a number of character elements. For example, a person who displays the character dimension of "temperance" will be patient, prudent, self-controlled, composed, and forgiving. 

This model of leadership character reflects many of the ideas arising from the focus groups and discussions with business leaders, as well as the researchers' own organizational experiences. "In our model we elevated some dimensions of character that were less recognized by earlier researchers, such as humility, accountability, collaboration, and integrity," says Crossan. "These are words that come up a lot in today's business organizations."

In another stream of its research to bridge theory and practice, the team is exploring ways to introduce the idea of leadership character to business schools. A forthcoming publication in Academy of Management Learning and Education looks at curriculum and course development, experiential learning, mentoring of students, and training of faculty. The idea, says Crossan, is that "it takes a village" to develop character.

At Ivey, Crossan has introduced an MBA course called "Transformational Leadership," which has been very well received. One key element of the course are workshops designed by student groups focusing on one of the 11 character dimensions. One student wrote: "I feel I've been greatly enriched by this course. My whole life has been flipped upside down and all the plans I had made for my future have had to be re-written." Ivey is also partnering with the Canadian Forces to offer a unique HBA course that brings together Ivey's focus on leadership character with the hard-won leadership lessons of Canada's military.

Another study in this research stream looks at ways to introduce leadership character into corporate boardrooms, to help directors recruit and develop talent. The study argues that an organization must look for three criteria in its leaders: competency, commitment, and character.  Directors generally understand competencies and commitment fairly well, but have trouble talking about character. "Many leaders derail because of character-based issues, such as ego or impatience or lack of courage," says Crossan. "These are not competency-based issues: these are about who people are."

Crossan's goal is to bring Ivey's research on leadership character into mainstream management theory and practice. "It's important that managers understand that these dimensions of character are fundamental to the quality of decision making," she says. The funding agency Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) recently awarded Crossan and her team, which now includes post-doctoral fellow Mark Reno, a large grant to continue this process.

Crossan says that it's important for managers to understand that dimensions of character support one another - a good leader can't be strong in some but weak in others. For example, courage without temperance can lead to the vice of recklessness. "You can't put together character like you would diverse skills in a team," she says. "A good leader needs to develop all the dimensions of character in concert, even though under different circumstances a leader may have to lean more heavily on one than another. If one is missing, you're vulnerable."